After two albums, the enormous excess of drink and drugs looked like it was going to bring a premature end to what was called the most dangerous British rock band of recent years. But behold: after going through rehab, Fat White Family is back with a vengeance and Serfs Up! “You can’t keep on banging your head against the same wall.”
In the press release, written by their new record label Domino, Fat White Family is typecast as “a bunch of outlaws being reborn”, but the three key members of the London rock band who are in front of us all shrug. “It may look good on paper, but what does that mean in reality?” wonders guitar player Saul Adamczewski, who went to rehab in Mexico to fight his cocaine and heroin addiction before joining his Fat White Family friends again. “If you’re Billy Idol you may feel like an outlaw, or Donald Trump. But I don’t even think we were ever really outlaws. Maybe we just live in an incredibly conservative age?” Singer Lias Saoudi, known for his messianic and explicit performances, nods along. “Maybe we were just surrounded by extremely law-abiding people. Maybe we were normal, and it is society’s crime, not ours.”
That may be true, but all three of them did realize just on time that their sensational rock and roll lifestyle with too much booze and hard drugs would hinder a long-term career. “We weren’t just discussing the replacement of a bassist or a drummer, we needed to change fundamentally. If we had long enough to clean up our act and we could stay away from all the distractions, then maybe we could rebuild things, loosely,” explains Lias, who decided to leave London and take his brother Nathan, the band’s keyboardist, to Sheffield, where they started to build a studio and a new chapter for their Family.
“We just couldn’t stay in London anymore. There were too many temptations. Financially, it wouldn’t have worked, and spiritually it would have been devastating.” Nathan confirms: “It would have meant the end of the band.”
Was the change of environment and location instrumental to the changed sound that we hear on the new album, with violins and brass?
Lias Saoudi: Probably, it gave us the chance to pick up the pieces and start all over again.
Saul Adamczewski: But also as musicians, it would have been boring to just continue to make thin lo-fi or garage rock. Through the various side projects that we’ve done (The Moonlandingz and Insecure Man, tp) we realized that as songwriters we were more skilled than we thought we were. Musically, we don’t have to be stuck in this same place.
Lias: The first demo of the first single was really weird, like an eight-minute-long electro psych thing. It didn’t really make sense, but we loved it. It didn’t have a Fat White feeling yet. So the challenge was to work back from that idea and then mix it in.
Is the title a reference to the Beach Boys album Surf’s Up?
Saul: A wink, but even more than that, it is an observation about the rise of populists. Serfs represent the voice of the masses, the anti-establishment, and the anti-globalist sentiment. It’s a statement about Brexit, and how people have chosen the wrong revolution. They think that they’re attacking the elite, but instead they are attacking themselves. People don’t need happy-go-lucky nihilists like us telling them that, but we’re still going to. (Laughs)
Lias, you and your brother Nathan are half Algerian, and grew up in Northern Ireland, but your mother is from Yorkshire. That must have given you a clear inside perspective into the underbelly of British society.
Lias: Yes, racism was often blatant. In Northern Ireland they called us sand niggers. And you know what? My mother voted Brexit. “Too many immigrants,” she explained to me. When I reacted that she was once married to one, she said: “Exactly, so I know what it is like.”
Nathan Saoudi: There isn’t even a shred of evidence that Brexit will stop any kind of immigration.
Lias: No, there isn’t. But working-class people in Yorkshire did vote for Brexit to keep the foreigners out. That’s a sad thing because it was not immigration that destroyed our economy and our country, but free market enterprise with no social concern whatsoever since Thatcherism. That has eroded any sense of community. Now, there are two Britains, one in London and another outside, and these two are less and less capable of dialogue and are becoming increasingly alienated from each other.
What does the idyllic landscape on the cover of the new album represent?
Lias: It’s by Maximilien de Meuron, a 19th-century Swiss painter. The romantic ideas he represented, and the symbolic language behind it, are too often caught up by extreme right nationalists. That’s very unfair, so we took something for ourselves.
Will this musical leap forwards have an influence on your live performances, which used to be rather explicit? Nathan: We will have to be more articulate to create a suitable landscape for the music. There are more samples, some new instrumentation, synths, brass.
Lias: Because of the nature of the new material, the show may contain less nudity. But then again, when you get into a performance, you stop thinking… Of course, it’s one of those things you experiment with early on. I remember walking onto the stage with a curious feeling about doing a whole show naked. It is an odd sensation. I can assure you that if you are naked on stage, you don’t feel nervous about hitting the right notes.
Saul: I think it is just like any other drug; it has a shelf life.
Nathan: Also, he needs to hit the gym! (Laughs)
Restricting nudity on stage didn’t mean you became less provocative?
Lias: No. Subversive music has a long history. At its best it is provocative, and it treats music like an artform as opposed to a commercial prospect.
Saul: People are afraid to say anything that might be edgy, which makes it somehow cool to try.
Nathan: Our message remains: try to be provocative, try to be political, try to have ideas. You might fail, but that’s still better than a lot of musicians who just carry on in a safe tradition. We stood out, but that’s because we had no friends and no one liked us, and no one does like us. People thought we were a bunch of cunts anyway. Socially we never had anything to lose.
Only yourself maybe?
Lias: True, but after everything we’ve been through, we are closer than ever. We are almost actual family now. It helps. Since we moved back to London and we’re surrounded by temptations, it has become harder and harder to find excuses. You can’t keep on banging your head against the same wall.
Saul: Even for happy-go-lucky nihilists, there’s nothing wrong with being a bit more responsible.
FAT WHITE FAMILY 12/6, 19.30, Botanique